Pathways Around Linton Hall, Michigan State University

Charting a Path to Intellectual Leadership, then Following It

As a junior faculty member, I attended every possible workshop on tenure and promotion I could find. Inevitably, however, as the shared wisdom of those who had successfully been tenured and promoted washed over me, my anxiety would slowly rise until, by the time the session was over, I had a pit of anxiety in my stomach and a feeling of inadequacy that it would take days to overcome.

During that time, I discovered that the most effective way to turn my paralyzing anxiety into motivating anxiety was to step back to consider my deepest academic commitments. This enabled me to return with renewed intention to the work.

Now, as a Dean, I am often asked to speak on just the sort of panel that caused my younger self such anxiety.

Academic Advancement Network Panel, February 23, 2017 (aan.msu.edu)

When I do, I try to emphasize one point:

Chart your path to intellectual leadership, then follow it.

This is easy to say, but very hard to accomplish. To make it easier, let’s divide the suggestion into two parts: 1) charting your path to leadership, 2) following it.

Charting Intellectual Leadership

Charting a path to intellectual leadership requires articulating what intellectual leadership looks like in your area of scholarship.

This means you need to articulate it…put it into words, write it down.

In the very process of articulating it, you begin to give it shape and texture; you begin to imagine what it looks like, and more importantly, how you will know if you have achieved it. Identify specific indicators of success: art exhibitions, articles in specific journals, books published, new approaches established, new areas of study discovered, new pedagogies adopted, innovative curriculum developed…

Consider as indicators of success not only products, but processes, the manner in which you proceed can be as much a sign of leadership as accomplishments accumulated.

Note that your path cannot be charted in isolation. Consider your field, consider your colleagues, consider your chair and, yes, your Dean; consider the ways the institution that supports your work measures success for itself.

This Twitter exchange @cplong captures it well:

Then Follow It

Once you have articulated your path to intellectual leadership, following it requires cultivating intentional practices of habitual focus.

Here let me first provide a few general principles, but then, since colleagues have asked about my workflow as a scholar and administrator, I thought I would share a Prezi that outlines how I attempt to cultivate habits of intentional focus in my role as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University.

First, and more generally, as I have written before, know thyself. Identify the time of day when you are most intellectually alive and reserve that time for your scholarship.

Second, time yourself. Seriously. Right now I am 5 minutes into the second of three Pomodoros I committed to writing this post. The Pomodoro Technique is one useful way to ensure that your best time does not get away from you.

Third, attend to your attention. Ask yourself before saying yes to a project if this will empower you to advance along your path to intellectual leadership. If it will not, say no.

Fourth, be relentless. Cultivating intentional practices of habitual focus takes time, but it also gets easier over time as you develop the disposition of discipline.

Finally, here is a Prezi that outlines my workflow and demonstrates how I try to position my scholarship at the center of my academic and administrative life:

Ultimately, tenure and promotion are not ends in themselves, they are indicators of success along a longer path to intellectual leadership and a meaningful life.